self-help


I’m nearing the end of my series of posts about David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. As I read the book I was most interested in what DFW had to say about the struggles we in present-day America have with living meaningful and genuine lives. The first four posts provide some thoughts about what I take to be Wallace’s portrayal of those struggles. This post and the next one will focus on what he offers that might provide help.

As I noted earlier, one place that Wallace thinks provides assistance is in recovery programs such as AA and NA. Wallace was himself an alcoholic and was quite familiar with the 12-Step model of treatment. As he describes the recovery program at Ennet House, a treatment facility, he both repeats some of AA’s standard dogma and offers his own observations about the nature of this approach to recovery and how it works to bring about change.

As discussed back in the first of my posts, IJ describes a world in which most people have strong desires that can gain control over their lives. Pursuit of these desires seems to promise a better life–not only a life of pleasure, but also escape from pain. Unfortunately, with time the pleasure fades and pain returns. One of the first things that must be done in treatment is to face the inevitability of pain:

“[T]hey tell you how it’ll all get better and better as you abstain and recover: they somehow omit to mention that the way it gets better and you get better is through pain…. At least this pain means you’re going somewhere, they say, instead of the repetitive gerbil-wheel of addictive pain.” (p. 446)

There will be pain associated with growth, but focusing on the pain to come is counterproductive. Instead, the emphasis is on living with the present moment’s pain. It’s the AA slogan “Take one day at a time” broken into even finer portions, as in Ennet House staff member Gately dealing with the pain of withdrawal from opioids:

“He had to build a wall around each second just to take it. The whole first two weeks of it are telescoped in his memory down to like one second–less: the space between two heartbeats.” (p. 860)

Accepting the pain and the need to participate in meetings and daily routines that are associated with recovery (though these are always offered as suggestions, not as requirements), the addict is encouraged not to look for the causes of his or her addiction, but simply to remember that they are indeed under the influence of that addiction:

“The Boston AA ‘In Here’ that protects against a return to ‘Out There’ is not about explaining what caused your disease. It’s about a goofily simple practical recipe for how to remember you’ve got the Disease day by day and how to treat the Disease day by day, how to keep the seductive ghost of a bliss long absconded from baiting you and hooking you and pulling you back Out and eating your heart raw and (if you’re lucky) eliminating your map for good. So no whys and wherefores allowed.” (p. 374)

Recovery–Keep Going to Meetings. Image from brickjest.com

The new residents often think the program is simplistic; they have trouble believing that it will work. The staff encourage them to put aside their doubts and simply do the things that the program recommends. One aspect of the program that many residents resist is turning  to God. The agnostics and atheists especially have trouble doing this. However, Wallace offers the following wry observation in the list of things that new Ennet House residents are likely to learn:

“That God might regard the issue of whether you believe there’s a God or not as fairly low on his/her/its list of things s/he/it’s interested in re you.” p. 205

Several months into his recovery, Gately has been praying every morning and evening–and has found it helps him maintain sobriety through the day. Nonetheless, speaking at an AA meeting, he admits he still has no sense of God:

“He says but when he tries to go beyond the very basic rote automatic get-me-through-this-day-please stuff, when he kneels at other times and prays or meditates or tries to achieve a Big-Picture spiritual understanding of a God as he can understand Him, he feels Nothing–not nothing but Nothing, an edgeless blankness that somehow feels worse than the sort of unconsidered atheism he Came In with.” p. 443

After the meeting, one of the attendees, a biker named Bob Death, tells him “the one about the fish.” Wallace told this story in his well-known 2005 Kenyon College commencement address. An old fish meets two young fish and greets them, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” As the two fish swim on, one turns to the other and asks, “What the f*** is water?” Gately listens,

“And his dreams late that night, after the Braintree/Bob Death Commitment, seem to set him under a sort of sea, at terrific depths, the water all around him silent and dim and the same temperature he is.” p. 449

For Wallace, God is like the sea, surrounding and supporting all of us, his/her very pervasiveness preventing us from recognizing his/her presence. Our growth towards wholeness doesn’t depend on believing in God so much as on acting as if we did. Practice matters, ideas mostly tend to trip us up rather than help.

So, then, some strategies that characters in IJ find helpful in living meaningful lives relatively free from addiction include accepting the pain, acquiring (but not analyzing) regular habits that interfere with unhealthy attachments, and putting trust in God, whether or not you believe his existence. I’ll reflect a bit more on the reasoning behind this approach to life in my final post on the book.

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What would make you happy?  A new car?  A new house?  Better health?  A better relationship?  A financial windfall?  Or none of the above?

 

According some psychologists, the correct answer is “none of the above.”  They describe a “hedonic treadmill,” which inevitably returns people to their baseline level of happiness.  The concept was first suggested by psychologists Philip Brickman and Donald Campbell in 1971 and has been supported by several studies.  According to this theory, just as we experience sensory adaptation when our eyes adjust to a suddenly bright room, we experience emotional adaptation to life events.  Thus, that new car may thrill you the first week or so, but in fairly short order you return to your old-car level of happiness.

 

What evidence is there that we’re stuck in happiness homeostasis?  In an early study, lottery winners were found to be no happier than non-winners.   Individuals who sustained spinal cord injuries had strong negative emotions a week after their accidents, but were happy two months later.  Also, nationwide surveys in some countries found that increases in income weren’t associated with gains in life satisfaction.

 

The research support for the hedonic treadmill, never especially strong, has eroded some over the years.  For one thing, economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers found that, on a sample of nations from which there is extensive survey data, life satisfaction increased as per capita GDP increased.  There would have been no such increase if everyone adapted to changes in life circumstances, as the hedonic treadmill would have it.  See Wolfers’ description of the findings here.   Also, an article in the American Psychologist by Ed Diener, Richard Lucas, and Christie Napa Scollon presented evidence that happiness levels can change over time.  For example, in a longitudinal study in Germany following individuals over a 17 year period, 24% of study participants had significantly changed levels of happiness over the course of the study.  A study spanning five years before and five years after major life events found that three such events—being widowed, divorcing, and being laid off from work—resulted in long-lasting changes in life satisfaction.  A fourth event—getting married—resulted only in short-term changes in life satisfaction followed by return to baseline. 

 

Diener et. al. point out that the research findings that they summarize do hide individual differences in adaptation.  For example, though on average people return to baseline after marrying, some research participants evidenced lasting improvements in their satisfaction level, while others showed long term declines.

 

The hedonic treadmill hasn’t been entirely discarded, but it certainly is not the universal phenomenon that Brickman and Campbell envisioned.  Significant life events can sometimes result in a permanent change in one’s life satisfaction.  Of equal interest, it now seems that at least some deliberate efforts to change life satisfaction can be successful.  In fact, some psychologists have designed intervention programs of this sort.  A book-length description of such a program is Sonja Lyubomirsky’s The How of Happiness.  Happiness seekers, get off your treadmills! 

Kelly Walter Carney sent me a link to another LA times article about happiness.  This article is entitled “How a ‘Happiness’ guide helped one Topanga Canyon family.”  The couple in question read The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, and tried to follow some of the guidelines offered, such as practicing gratitude and letting others be right. They both offer testimony to the value of the advice. “‘I was the classic stressed-out lawyer, but that’s changed, said Adam [Radinsky], 46, a deputy city attorney for Santa Monica, ‘I don’t want to say this miracle happened overnight, but I’m noticeably happier today than I was six months ago.'”

This seems a version of the classic conversion narrative, as described by William James. It’s interesting that Mr. Radinsky terms the change a “miracle,” suggesting divine intervention, though from everything else in the article it appears that he attributes his improvement to up-by-the-bootstraps personal effort. Perhaps self-help is a gospel unto itself that can’t help from veering into religious terminology.

The article also contains a link to a list of recently published self-help books on happiness. It seems that happiness help is a burgeoning subcategory of the self help literature.  I didn’t know that we now have both “Happiness for Dummies” and “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Happiness.” The titles remind me of the famous scene in “Annie Hall” in which Woody Allen goes up to a couple on the street and says something like, “The two of you seem happy. What’s your secret?” They reply that they are just so shallow and empty-headed that nothing bothers them. Maybe being a dummy isn’t so bad after all.